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Relaxed interisland travel rules bring relief to residents

Some returning from trans-Pacific travel say exemption system confusing

Hawaiian Airlines customer service agent Rachelle Kirton helps an arriving passenger find the proper carousel to search for his luggage Tuesday afternoon at Kahului Airport. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

KAHULUI — Calling the change a chance for residents to be reunited with family and friends for perhaps the first time since the pandemic, Maui officials praised the relaxed interisland travel rules that started statewide Tuesday.

“It’s a good thing for the local community,” Maui Airports District Manager Marvin Moniz said at the Kahului Airport on Tuesday. ” ‘Cause you know, for the last, almost two years, they never had an opportunity to see their families, whether at home or in care homes. . . . So I think it’s a big deal for us.”

Maui residents touching down at Kahului Airport breathed a sigh of relief Tuesday afternoon on the first day of relaxed rules for all interisland travelers. A handful of Maui residents returning from other Hawaii islands said they flew to see loved ones for the first time since the pandemic.

“It was so much simpler,” said Lili Ramelb of Lahaina. “The airlines were helpful, telling us where to go and what to do. It was a good experience for us after hearing stories of all the challenges.”

Ramelb, who traveled to Oahu with her young daughter, said that test expenses and wait times add up when planning interisland trips. She purposefully extended her Oahu trip to see family so she could return to Maui on the first day that rules were relaxed.

Hawaiian Airlines customer service agents Cindy Kavula (foreground) and Rachelle Kirton help guide arriving passengers to the proper carousel to find their luggage Tuesday afternoon at Kahului Airport. They said the combination of large flights arriving back-to-back combined with long lines upstairs as people clear coronavirus protocols means there can be two different flights using the same carousel at the same time. So, they unload the bags and separate them in long lines to make it easier for passengers to collect. On Tuesday, the state lifted restrictions on intercounty travel and also extended quarantine exemptions to trans-Pacific travelers who were fully vaccinated in Hawaii. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Allison Yoshimoto of Kula, also returning from an Oahu trip with family, said she is supportive of the changes.

“It’s great; now we can travel easily,” said John Brans of Lahaina, who was coming home from a work trip to Kauai.

People traveling between islands no longer need to take a pre-travel COVID-19 test, and interisland quarantine rules were dropped statewide as of Tuesday.

Previously, people traveling from Oahu to a Neighbor Island, and those traveling between Neighbor Islands, had to show a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of departure or show proof of vaccination to bypass the 10-day quarantine.

Rules were also relaxed beginning Tuesday for trans-Pacific travelers who were vaccinated in Hawaii.

Arriving passengers make their way through Kahului Airport’s baggage claim area Tuesday. Restrictions on intercounty travel were lifted statewide on Tuesday, making the process easier for travelers and cutting down on wait times, airport staff said. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

With proof of full vaccination completed at least 14 days prior to arrival, trans-Pacific travelers no longer had to produce a negative pre-travel test, which was required to bypass quarantine.

Some vaccinated Maui residents trying to get home from trans-Pacific travel, though, said seeking vaccine travel exemptions via the Safe Travels program is confusing and inconsistent.

Lori Kikuchi, who’s scheduled to return home to Maui from Las Vegas with her husband and her sister late Tuesday night, said all three are vaccinated and yet only two — her husband and her sister — were exempted via the Safe Travels website once proof of vaccination was uploaded.

“I’m happy about the new rules . . . but I’m not happy with me not getting exemption on my QR code and my sister and my hubby got exemption,” she said Tuesday afternoon.

Kikuchi said the three planned the dates of their trip around the new rules, and now she’s concerned she will have to wait in a long line to prove her vaccination status once she gets home to Maui.

“I tried calling (Safe Travels) to see if I did anything wrong but no one called me back,” she said.

Overall, the relaxed rules also created a more streamlined deplaning process, airport staff said. In previous months, some travelers at peak times had to wait an hour or more after getting off the plane and before picking up bags as Safe Travels and other documents were processed.

“Yesterday, the average time was 45 minutes,” said Cyndee Kavula, Hawaiian Airlines customer service agent. “Now they’re telling me it’s five and 10 minutes. That’s huge.”

Moniz said staff saw a reduction in terminal congestion now that interisland passengers are not waiting for clearance to move on to the baggage claim.

Mayor Michael Victorino hailed the travel changes as “good news” during a county news conference Tuesday afternoon.

“I know many of you are excited to see other family members and friends on other islands and have been missing out on that during the pandemic,” Deputy Managing Director Josiah Nishita said during the news conference. “Hawaii is a very close-knit community and I know a lot of you out there are really excited to get back to seeing your family and friends.”

Changes to travel restrictions were announced recently by Gov. David Ige, who gave vaccination benchmarks for reopening.

When the state reaches a vaccination rate of 60 percent, the vaccination exception that began Tuesday will extend to travelers vaccinated in the U.S., traveling domestically. When the state reaches a 70 percent vaccination rate, all restrictions on travel will be lifted.

As of Tuesday, 55 percent of Hawaii’s eligible population completed vaccinations and 61 percent initiated vaccinations, including federal doses, according to the state Department of Health data.

Hawaii ranks among the top four states for vaccination rates, and most local counties have vaccinated roughly half of their communities — in Maui County, 57 percent of the total population has initiated the vaccination process, with 46 percent completed; in Kauai County, 59 percent have initiated and 53 percent have completed; in Hawaii County, 58 percent have initiated and 47 percent have completed; and in Honolulu County, 55 percent have initiated while 48 percent have completed, according to DOH data. County breakdowns do not include federal doses.

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.

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